While the nation's eyes focused on New Hampshire tonight, President Carter rolled to an easy victory in the liberal Democratic stronghold of Minnesota.
Based on sample returns from selected precincts, NBC news said Carter had won 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor precinct caucuses and Sen. Edward Kennedy 9 percent. There were 34 percent uncommitted. The network projected this eventually would convert to 44 national convention delegates for Carter, five for Kennedy, and 25 uncommitted delegates.
The network, however, said the race between George Bush and Ronald Reagan in the Independent-Republican Party caucuses was "too close to call." That race was non-binding; delegates were selected separately.
Reagan has built up a strong lead in his rural Minnesota strongholds, but Bush came back strong in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs and appeared to be doing much better than he did in New Hampshire.
With 17 percent of the precincts reporting, Reagan had 36 percent, Bush 29 percent, Rep. John Anderson a surprisingly strong 11 percent, Sen. Howard Baker 7 percent, John conally 6 percent and Rep. Philip Crane 2 percent.
The computer system state Republicans had set up to tally returns of straw ballots taken at 4,000 precincts broke down in the early evening, and its designer, John Readout, who put together a similar system that failed during the Iowa precinct caucuses, promptly went home in embarrassment.
The party began calculating results by hand, and it appeared that the winner of the GOP race would not be known until sometime Wednesday, if ever. With only one percent of the precincts reported, Reagan had 39 percent, Bush 28 percent, Rep. John Anderson 9 percent, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. 7 percent and John Connally 6 percent.
The Carter victory in the home state of Vice President Mondale was expected, but not by as wide a margin as appeared to be building up tonight. Official Democratic results will be mailed in and won't be available for weeks. But a straw poll taken by the Carter-Mondale campaign claimed that those attending the DFL caucuses favored Carter over Kennedy by a margin of 7 to 1.
Richard Moe, Mondale's chief political operative, said the results showed "the Kennedy campaign is incapable of effectively contesting for delegates in more than one state at a time."
"I just talked to the vice president," Moe said. "He is extremely pleased. We should win 55 of the 75 delegates to the national convention. It could even be higher."
Carter and Reagan both were early favorites here. But political observers had felt Reagan was slipping because of his failure to make more than one campaign trip here.
Liz McPike, Kennedy's Minnesota coordinator, said she expected a "modest showing" in the straw balloting, taken at selected precincts by several news organizations and the Carter-Mondale campaign. "But we intend to go to work among uncommitted delegate and pick up a sizable number of them for kennedy," she said.
She charged that the Carter-Mondale forces had tried to manipulate caucus results by conducting their own straw balloting and releasing it in time for evening television news shows and early editions of eastern newspapers.
"I think they may be embarrassed by the results in a few days," McPike added.
Minnesota will send 75 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, three times as many as New Hampshire, and 34 delegates, more than a third more than the Granite State, to the Republican convention.
But the caucuses here have been completely overshadowed by other events. First, the attention the national media focuses on New Hampshire caused most of the candidates to pay little attention to Minnesota. "On a scale of one to 10, New Hampshire is a 10 and Minnesota is a 0.5," complained Tom Tripp, the Bush campaign coordinator in the state.
Then the U.S. hockey team, led by University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks and 11 Minnesota players completely captured the attention of this hockey-crazy state by winning an Olympic gold medal. Hundreds turned out toady to give the team a heroes' welcome, a parade from downtown Minneapolis to the state capitol in adjoining St. Paul.
The Minnesota caucuses resembled those in neighboring Iowa, the site of the first formal test of the 1980 presidential race. They are small neighborhood meetings, held in town halls, fire stations, church basements and living rooms. Traditionally only one voter in 20 attends.
As in Iowa, the caucuses are the first step in a multi-tier process that runs into June. It is not until the third tier that any actual delegates are chosen but a staw ballot is taken at the meetings, and delegates committed to one candidate or another are elected to advance to the next level.
It is here the caucuses differ from those held earlier this year in Iowa, Maine and Arkansas. Traditionally, Minnesota caucuses are battlegrounds for highly charged, emotional fights over endorsements for local candidates and groups pushing single-issue causes. These groups form subcaucus slates to push their own causes.
Presidential preferences often are shunted aside. The late Hubert H. Humphrey, almost a patron saint among Democrats, fared poorly in the precinct caucuses in 1968 and 1972 because of his support of the Vietnam war and in 1976 because of the proliferation of single-interest groups. That year only 32.3 percent of the precinct delegates were pledged to Humphrey while 51 percent were on uncommitted or no-preference slates.
This year the strongest uncommitted slates are those backed by pro- and anti-abortion groups. Both are highly organized in the state and sponsored major media advertising campaigns to bolster their efforts.